The Middle East's Education Problem

Tunisia’s Jasmine revolution, which began one month ago with the self-immolation of an unemployed university graduate, was rooted in a lack of opportunity and the inflated expectations of the powers of a university degree.

Education is not the filling of a bucket but the lighting of a fire. – Bulter Yeats

Mohamed Bouazizi proved just that. His decision to douse himself with petrol and set himself ablaze was spawned by a sense of despair and a cynicism due to betrayed hopes of a better future, a better future he figured, that was earned through a university degree. He, like his compatriots and thousands of others in Egypt, blamed his president. Ironically, by helping to reform their educational systems, Presidents Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak fanned the flames of revolution. Several weeks later, the two former heads of state have seen the truth in the words of the Irish poet come to life.

It is no secret that many Arab countries need educational reform. Yet, remodeling the system to fit Western standards doesn’t necessarily equate to long-term success. In fact, by increasing access to education and providing free university schooling – no doubt noble causes – Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak helped spawn their own demise.

The daunting complication is that with progress in education comes inflated expectations for job prospects and the exaggerated worth of university degrees. The Western-style university system is still relatively new in Tunisia and Egypt so for many families, this generation is the first to go to university. The idea of a college degree conjures grandiose images of a brighter future with endless opportunities. As a small country with relative lack of resources, Tunisia is simply ill-equipped to handle so many new graduates. Its economic infrastructure has not yet caught up with the number of students in need of jobs.  Add the woes of the economic crisis to the problem and the volatile situation turns revolutionary. In Egypt, a population of 80 million (eight times the size of Tunisia’s) only magnifies the divide. 

Given that almost everyone has access to education in Tunisia while a smaller majority enjoys the same Egypt, a deadly two-fold problem emerged similar to our current predicament with high schools in the U.S. First, if everyone holds a degree, such degrees no longer hold the same value. Masters degrees – at this point often PhD’s – are what separate students. Secondly, the more students that enroll, the more over-stretched the system becomes as there are fewer qualified professors to teach so many students, thus driving down the quality of the degree.

It is difficult for those in the West to imagine operating a fruit stand or driving a taxi while holding a university degree or even a PhD in engineering. In North Africa, such a grim fate is a common reality that many youth are resigned to. Eventually there is a fissure. Sadly, Mohamed Bouazizi reached his breaking point. Inspired by his misfortune and roused by their own suffering, the youth of Tunisia and Egypt revolted in frustration.

Bouazizi was desperate because the corrupt police continually shut down his fruit stand. He was desperate because he wanted a job and felt that a university degree should guarantee that. He was desperate because he didn’t believe he had a bright future in Tunisia and had anywhere else to go. Obtaining a VISA may have been the limiting factor for Bouazizi, but the widely recognized fact that European companies will only entertain applicants from a very few elite universities is strong indication that expectations must be tempered, the university system reevaluated, and jobs created that suit the needs and abilities of the people.

Going forward, if the political firestorm of the Middle East is to be truly contained, immediate attention and a hard look at the meaning of education will be required. Otherwise, more educations will go to waste and Mohamed Bouazizi’s death will have been in vain.

Photo Credit: Nian Bakal